When Margaret Hoffman's kids were in elementary school, their teachers told them their mom would make a great teacher.
A teacher? Hoffman laughed it off.
She was an urban forestry expert. A native plant lover. A landscape designer.
“I thought there was no way I had the patience to be a teacher,” she says.
Those grade school teachers were pretty smart.
These days, Hoffman is assistant professor of landscape contracting at Pennsylvania State University.
And she loves it.
Teaching What She Knows
“It was a complete surprise to me that I was a good teacher,” Hoffman says. “You have different skill sets at different times in your life. Now I can use all that practical knowledge I’ve gained over the years and frame it in different ways so students can understand it.”
“All that practical knowledge” is a lot.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in forestry from the University of Minnesota, Hoffman started a career in urban forestry, which morphed into a career in landscaping and a doctorate in horticulture from Pennsylvania State University.
She started her own landscape design and build company, Hoffman’s Garden By Design, with an emphasis on sustainability.
She researched and installed natural swimming pools that are chlorine free, the water filtered naturally by plants.
Her research turned into a PhD dissertation, and as she worked as a teaching assistant at Penn State, she realized she loved teaching.
“Even being a mom, explaining things to my kids, setting rules and expectations, prepared me for this,” Hoffman says. “It all flows real naturally into teaching.”
She taught at Western Illinois University and California Polytechnic State University, then jumped at the chance to return to Penn State in early 2018.
Wisdom From The Field
Hoffman goes beyond the nuts and bolts of landscaping to instill values in her students, she says.
“Ethical, professional behavior is very important to me,” she says. “When clients hire us, we’re their representatives. You shouldn’t do anything that you know is bad practice.”
Even if that’s what the client wants, she says.
“You don’t run equipment on wet soil,” she says. “It causes compaction, it destroys the soil structure, it makes it difficult for plants to thrive. I encourage students to talk to their clients about this so they understand why they can’t come out for a couple days.
“It’s a tough balancing act,” she admits. “There are always schedules to meet.”
More Hoffman wisdom: The right plant in the right place.
“Don’t put something in that requires more maintenance than the client can afford,” she says.
Why Penn State?
Penn State’s College of Agricultural Science offers 17 majors, from landscape contracting to turf grass science to environmental resource management.
“We have a lot of resources behind us,” Hoffman says. “There’s strong support for our program from the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Plant Science.”
Top notch computer labs are stocked with the latest landscaping software.
“You don’t always see that at other schools,” she says. “These things aren’t cheap.”
She’s excited about reaching out to other colleges at the university to forge collaboration.
“I see us working with the engineering people on soil filtration and the plant pathology department on microbiomes,” Hoffman says. “It will be nice to share ideas and work together.”
Even The Pros Battle Weeds
Hoffman left her business behind to teach, but she still loves getting her hands dirty.
“I have one acre of land at home that’s way over- landscaped,” Hoffman says with a laugh. “Right now it’s more weeds than landscape. I have to whip it into shape this year.”
Hoffman loved using her own property as test gardens when she ran her landscaping business, planting new varieties and trying out unique plant combinations. She installed different hardscape materials and water features so clients could stroll through for ideas.
She shares her over-landscaped acre with husband
Tom, a process improvement specialist for a hospital system.
They have four grown children: Callista, 30, a singer and music teacher; Colin, 27, a master brewer in Maine; Maureen, 25, who’s working on her master’s degree in urban planning and design; and Connor, 20, studying ecology.
“Sometimes as a mom you wonder if you’ve had any impact on your kids at all,” Hoffman muses. “Do they have any of you inside them?”
Collin recently got a puppy and named it Tillie.
“I asked him, ‘Why Tillie?’” Hoffman says. “He said, ‘We have a lot of American basswood trees here.’”
Its Latin name: Tilia americana.
“I cracked up,” she says. “He’s a plant geek, just like me.”
Why Company Relationships Matter
Having a solid connection with landscaping companies like Level Green is crucial for a university landscaping program, Hoffman says.
“You cannot quantify how valuable this is,” she says. “It validates our program to have industry support. Students come to our program because they know we have connections with companies where they can work and have a good career.
“Level Green provides so many opportunities,” she says. “Internships. Careers. Support so we can compete in student competitions. A place to visit on our fall field trips, so students can get exposure to new things.”
Alumni like Level Green’s James Kole have visited Penn State classes to talk to students about the landscaping industry.
“Alumni offer a real world view,” Hoffman says, “so it’s not just teachers standing up here.”
The connection is valuable to Level Green, too, says Michael Mayberry, chief technology officer and part of the Level Green recruiting team.
“Having a good relationship with a professor or a school gives us a steady stream of potential employees,” Mayberry says. “We spend a lot of time recruiting. Forging a good bond like this helps us fill our needs, with recommendations from someone we know.”
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